Princesses, overpriced theme parks and a rapacious commercialisation of childhood: these would have been my suggestions if I’d been asked six months ago what I thought were Walt Disney’s legacies. Which isn’t to say that I’m anti-Disney. At all. Every generation has their Disney, and just as I grew up singing along to Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Mrs Potts (so superior to Belle) in Beauty and the Beast, so my children are regularly babysat by Frozen and Encanto. I watched the films on a VHS, my children stream them, but the effect is the same: just one glimpse of the Magic Kingdom icon at the start of a Disney film acts like a stun gun on them, silencing them mid-argument then pinning them to the sofa.
At moments like that, man, I love Disney. At other times, I feel less positively inclined. When I get on my highest of horses, I will argue that Disney has done to pop culture what McDonald’s has done to fast food: homogenising it and boiling it down to the most quickly digestible basics, dealing in broad strokes and gender stereotypes. By now, the Walt Disney Company owns – as far as I can tell – every last bit of entertainment that isn’t Amazon or Netflix, and we live in a Disneyfied world, with little girls wearing Elsa fancy dress and boys opting for Captain Jack Sparrow. But what really is Walt’s legacy?
Maybe it’s your three-year-old singing We Don’t Talk About Bruno for the 752nd time in two days, making you want to tear off your own ears and eat them. Or maybe it’s harassed parents forking out $50 a head so the family can eat breakfast with someone in a Goofy suit at the theme parks’ (in)famous Character Breakfasts. Or maybe it’s the history of allegations from Disney park employees that they are so badly paid they can barely cover living costs. Given the Disney corporation’s energetic promotion of their founder’s image as a twinkly eyed benevolent genius, what would he think of the world he created?
A few months ago, the podcast company Novel asked if I would narrate its upcoming 10-part series, Life and Death in the Magic Kingdom, written by Al Horner. It tells the life of Disney through the films made during Walt’s lifetime, with each episode dedicated to one film, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to The Jungle Book (1967). Despite my lifelong history of watching Disney movies, and a subscription to Disney+ that I came to value during lockdown at least as much as my access to clean water, I knew almost nothing of Walt himself. He was cryogenically frozen? And had a real-life mouse named Mickey? So I said yes, partly out of curiosity. And I learned a lot while working on the series, including about the history of cryonics. I also learned that old Walt himself was no slouch when it came to stiffing his workers.
But, really, I learned about the movies. The main reason I agreed to do the podcast was this sounded like a rare job with which my children could help me. My twin boys are six and my daughter is three so I pretty much live with a Disney test audience. So I sat down with the kids, ignored their wails as I scrolled past all the movies they recognised, and introduced them to old Disney. Vintage Disney. Real Disney.
To all of our astonishment, they actually enjoyed them. I assumed that, as children of the CGI era, they would find the old movies’ hand drawings cold and inaccessible, but I underestimated the efficacy of Disney’s storytelling. Well, some of the time. Before we proceed, I shall list, in ascending order, how well the original Disney films went down with my kids: Fantasia; Pinocchio; Dumbo; Bambi; Alice in Wonderland; Cinderella; Snow White; Mary Poppins; The Jungle Book.
That kids in 2022 don’t like Fantasia – Disney’s plot-free film featuring abstract animated interpretations of classical music – is not a massive surprise. Kids didn’t like it in 1940 when it was released, and who could blame them? Sure, it looks neat, but your enjoyment of Fantasia generally depends on how much LSD you’ve ingested that day, which is why the film enjoyed a surge of popularity in the 60s and 70s, and why it did not on my sofa.
“But Pinocchio?!” you cry. “How could your kids not love Pinocchio, that adorable film about a puppet whose nose grows when he lies?” Well, dear readers, you clearly have not seen Pinocchio in a while. Not only is the nose shtick barely a thing in the film (one scene – literally one scene!), it seems to me to be a film with dark overtones of paedophilia, in which Pinocchio and other boys are kidnapped and taken to a place called – I kid you not – Pleasure Island. My bored and confused children had wandered off long before that delightful plot development, while I quietly gave thanks for the less complicated joys of Paw Patrol.
There were some things they didn’t like about the original Disney films. The racism in Dumbo (1941) bewildered them – not so much the crow named Jim (what larks), which went entirely over my six-year-olds’ heads, but rather it was the faceless slaves at the beginning who sing merrily about working until “we’re almost dead” and address one another as “you hairy ape”. Was this supposed to be happy, because it didn’t seem like it, their baffled faces said. Just as well I didn’t subject them to Song of the South, a paean to the innate cheerfulness of slaves, which was made five years after Dumbo and which is very much not on Disney+.
Then there was the unexpected brutality of the old Disney movies. Sure, the modern films for kids contain jeopardy: is Andy outgrowing his toys in Toy Story? Can Riley get through puberty in Inside Out? Well, old Disney movies see that and raise you Dumbo torn away from his jailed, weeping mother; Snow White in a coffin; Bambi’s mother dying in the snow, which turns out to traumatise children today just as much as it did 80 years ago – thanks for that, Walt. Even Mary Poppins disappearing at the end of her film and Mowgli abandoning his animal family for some eight-year-old minx with a water jug have a degree of poignancy not seen in modern films. Life really was tougher in the old days.
But in the main, my kids loved them. The Jungle Book and Mary Poppins they’d seen before, but Cinderella, Snow White and Alice in Wonderland were huge surprise hits – they genuinely loved them. How could they not? Modern kids’ films had trained them to do so, because they themselves had learned from the original Disney films how to tell stories. Olaf the chatty snowman in Frozen? The direct descendant of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. Disney and his team recognised that a chatty sidekick was essential as a moral anchor in this otherwise extremely weird story, and so moved away from the original source material, in which Pinocchio meets the cricket and, er, murders him. (Seriously, Pinocchio is crazy AF.)
A common theory is that Disney’s anthropomorphised animals, especially Bambi, kickstarted the vegetarian movement in the US and, to a lesser extent, environmentalism. Possibly, but more obviously the film mainstreamed the use of cute talking animals in stories for kids, and it’s not too hard to trace a line from Thumper and the helpful mice in Cinderella to Bluey and Hey Duggee.
Walt Disney took often extremely harsh and strange stories and refashioned them, removing the brutalism and bloodiness of the 19th century and replacing them with the soft focus of the 20th. That we remember Pinocchio for the nose rather than those dark overtones is testament to Disney marketing (and Disney himself learned his lesson on that movie when the film bombed with audiences due to its darkness). In Cinderella, he skipped over the stepsisters cutting off bits of their feet to fit into the glass slipper, as was in the Brothers Grimm story; in Snow White, he named the dwarves and gave them (vague) personalities. Alice in Wonderland is a pretty trippy movie, but nowhere near as much as Lewis Carroll’s book.
Walt Disney “happily ever after-ed” kids’ stories, and that some of his films are now hopelessly dated is no surprise; the real shock is that so many are not. Disney reshaped modern childhood, and we still live in his shadow.
Life and Death in the Magic Kingdom, narrated by Hadley Freeman, will air on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds in August.
July 18, 2022 at 12:42PM Hadley Freeman